Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Death of Aerith Gainsborough

This is part of an ongoing series about my favorite memories from video games. You can find the original list and table of contents in last month's post or by clicking here. Please be aware that these posts are going to be full of spoilers which may ruin the impact of these events on anyone who wishes to experience them on their own in the future.

#2 - The Death of Aerith Gainsborough

I worked hard the summer of 1997 in order to save up enough money to buy a Sony Playstation and FinalFantasy VII by its launch that September. It was a difficult decision for me, because up until then I had always considered myself loyal to Nintendo, but what it came down to (and always has since) was that I followed the games. Final Fantasy VII was announced for Playstation, and so for the first time ever I needed to question my true loyalty. I made the right decision, because Final Fantasy VII was one of the greatest gaming experiences I had as a teenager. I can assure you that a quick glance around the internet makes me feel that I’m not alone. It’s also reassuring that the moment I’m about to describe did not only impact me significantly, but a vast majority of people who played this game. Nearly every list of memorable moments in gaming has included the death of Aerith Gainsborough.

Aerith's face is the first and last thing you see in the game (excluding the epilogue).
Aerith Gainsborough starts the game as a flower seller in the dirty, crowded streets of Midgar. When Cloud bumps into her again, she asks if he’ll consider being her bodyguard and protecting her from a gang called the Turks. They have been ever pushy with bringing her in to Shinra headquarters for research purposes. Eventually, you find out Aerith is the last surviving Ancient, or Cetra. As a Cetra, Aerith has a deep, misunderstood relationship with the planet itself which is what interests the Shinra Electric Company, who are tapping the planet for its energy-giving resources. Aerith is sweet, kind and a tad affectionate with Cloud who reminds her of her boyfriend that she lost during the war prior to the events of the game. Aerith is the only natural source of healing and support. Her natural abilities are defensive, while the rest of her companions are offensive. To some degree, they are all tough, battle-hardened and passionate in their fight against Shinra; Aerith is a vast contrast. She is soft, quiet, reserved, and doesn’t appear to be built for fighting.

So after a terrible setback against their primary adversary, Sephiroth, regarding an object capable of destroying the entire planet, the party's morale hits an all-time low. Without the consent of her companions, Aerith sets off on her own to commune with the planet and stop Sephiroth from using this ultimate magic to destroy the world. Once they realize she’s gone, the party chases after her and the trail leads them to an ancient Cetra ruin, called the Forgotten City. Aerith is found praying upon a dais. As Cloud approaches she looks up to him and smiles, which is the exact moment Sephiroth descends from somewhere high above and impales her on the end of his sword. The moment is shocking and abrupt to say the least.

This is not what I was expecting, right then.
Aerith was not the first “Final Fantasy” character to meet an untimely end. Even in North America, Tellah from Final Fantasy IV gave his life to avenge his daughter, and Shadow from Final Fantasy VI can meet an unpleasant demise if the player isn’t careful. These deaths are more like blazes of glory, however. They are dramatic, significant and meaningful. Aerith’s death feels arbitrary and meaningless. It catches the player completely off-guard, and leaves the desperate desire for some way to reverse this tragedy. It made me despise Sephiroth and really wish to hunt him down and hold him responsible for these actions. That's one aspect of my long dissertation about what makes Sephiroth a very compelling villain that I won’t get into in this article. He takes something precious away, and it isn’t coming back.

So I asked myself when I started this project, “What makes Aerith different?” I considered it may be due to the game being the first to leave behind 2D sprite-based characters for 3D models thereby giving the player a more meaningful connection to the character as they become more human. Ultimately, I don’t believe that to be true. I think what is really powerful about Aerith’s death is the scope and tone described above. First, she’s likeable. Her shortcomings are possibly being “too kind” or “too peaceful.” That ties into the second factor, she’s a civilian. The girl was selling flowers on the street. She wasn’t fighting a crusade against Shinra, or trained to battle in any way. She was just pulled into this conflict almost against her will. Then finally, she’s taken away in one of the most unconventional means possible in dramatic storytelling – very little drama. In the short blink of an eye, she goes from being happy to be reunited with her teammates to permanently lost. Because they make her likeable and innocent, for the player who has gotten to know her, the scene feels closer to a real death than any other death scene in a video game that I’ve played.

Return to the Lifestream
It's interesting to see that the first time I watched Aerith die, I briefly passed through the iconic stages of grief. Of course, my first natural reaction was shock and disbelief. I could not believe this was happening to Aerith of all possible characters. As I’ve said, she is the most innocent of the whole lot. I thought she would live, or we could bring her back. I was in that denial for most of the rest of the game. It was a fiction, a fantasy, these things weren’t outside the realm of possibility. I was so extremely angry at Sephiroth. I wanted to kill him. It’s weird to think about, because over time I really love him as a fictional character, in part because he was able to elicit such strong emotions, but at the time I just wanted his head. It was incredibly depressing as I approached the final dungeon and realized there was either no way to bring her back, or I simply messed up and couldn’t find the way. Although this is perhaps a stretch of the bargaining stage, I spent a great deal of time looking into the rampant rumors that she could be brought back, assessing and analyzing every single aspect of every rumor to try and fix what was wrong with the game. Eventually (and I mean years later) I came to understand how important it was to the story that she die and stay dead. Though different than acceptance in true grieving, I understood that she was part of something much greater, and ultimately more meaningful than I’d given credit in the past. I could not only accept that she dies, but agree that from a literary standpoint it was the best possible way to have a game player experience all these complex emotions. I am over analyzing all this, but it’s safe to say no other video game, television, or movie death has ever pushed me this close to real grief.

As I turned these things over in my head, I found this quote on Wikipedia regarding Aerith from one of the men who worked on the story of Final Fantasy VII which mirrors my thoughts.
“People die of disease and accident. Death comes suddenly and there is no notion of good or bad. It leaves, not a dramatic feeling but a great emptiness. When you lose someone you loved very much you feel this big empty space and think ‘If I had known this was coming, I would have done things differently.’”
–Yoshinori Kitase, Edge, May 2003
When you look to television, Hollywood movies, and video games for portrayals of death you are mostly surrounded with warm fuzzy feelings that the heroes died for a good reason, or the villains died because they deserved it. Although it’s great for marketing to have everyone walk away from your product feeling fulfilled and justified, every now and then a scene that resonates with real life will really stick with people. So I think, for me particularly, Aerith’s death was one of the first times I was confronted with a glimpse of the reality of death. I had never lost anyone I was especially close to at the time, though even at seventeen I’d known a few people here and there who just disappeared without warning. Because they weren’t terribly close to me, though, I didn’t think much about mortality. That’s why I think this scene hit me so hard. It really forces it right in my face. It’s not something I can ignore, or walk away from, or pretend it doesn’t bother me. It’s a powerful scene.

The last thing I’d touch on is the music of this scene. There is no music leading up to Aerith’s death. It’s eerily quiet for a game full of wonderful music. It’s not until a shining white marble drops from her hair and touches on the dais that music starts. The white marble she’s been wearing was given to her by her mother (and turns out to be pretty important, which explains why Sephiroth wanted to kill Aerith). As this marble bounces down the dias and drops into the water below, the song called “Aerith’s Theme” begins to play. Like Aerith herself, the piece is soft, peaceful and harmonious. The music plays through the ensuing boss fight (a monster left behind by Sephiroth) and through Aerith’s burial in the waters of the Forgotten City. Although it never took on this aspect previously, when its playing now it seems infinitely sadder, although nothing in the music itself has changed. The song is included in Theatrhythm Final Fantasy and during it you are treated? to the full scene of Aerith dying and being returned to the planet. It’s very distracting and I try not to focus on it, but as a result I can’t seem to do well in that song. As I’ve mentioned many times already, music has a way of reconnecting me to moments in video games and this is no different. I’m often fighting tears while trying to focus on keeping the rhythm going. Two versions of "Aerith's Theme" are included in my widget today.

This song continues to thwart my efforts.
This moment is easily my #1 moment in terms of most emotional, as opposed to strictly memorable. The scene is shocking and unbelievable sad, which is a combination not often found in video game stories. It has stuck with me for fifteen years, and still manages to get me all choked up when I’m confronted with the scene or the music. I do believe this kind of attachment to characters is unique to the video game medium, because unlike characters in a book or in a film which you watch and (hopefully) relate to, characters in a video game are an extension of you. They succeed as you succeed. You grow with them. It’s can be a very rewarding, emotional experience, depending on how well the story and characters are portrayed. I would never begin to say that the death of Aerith is anything close to the pain we feel when someone we truly know and love, but what I am saying is that for a piece of literature the loss of Aerith has left a considerable, and unique emptiness in my heart that is unlike any other emotional wound I’ve ever received from a novel, film, or game.  


Related Links
TOP Ten Memorable Moments
 The scene on YouTube -

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